Laos had recently opened its doors to tourism. When we there in 1999 it started a marketing campaign ‘Visit Laos Year 2000’ to welcome more visitors to travel to Laos. It was a country considered off the beaten track even by the most intrepid backpackers. We saw striking landscapes, architecture and temples. But best of all was the opportunity to meet genuine people.
We remember the fun we had, talking and laughing with local children and walking along the peaceful streets. We were among the first foreign tourists that local people had the rare chance to meet. And they embraced us with open arms, even inviting us to their weddings. And in the following years on our travels, we rarely met anyone as friendly as the people in Laos. We had the most extraordinary time travelling in a country not frequently visited.
Flash Forward to Travel in Laos in 2019
So twenty years later, it would be interesting to see how a country had changed. Would it have boomed like its neighbouring countries Vietnam and Thailand? Would ugly high-rise buildings block out the skies? Moreover, would the locals still be friendly and authentic?
We did some pre-arrival research, as we wanted to find out what travel bloggers thought of Laos. We found various accounts of majestic temples, rich culture, untouched nature and delicious food. There were reviews of fascinating sights, welcoming people and a tourist boom. However, there were also reviews of mass tourism ruining Laos. Namely, it was the town of Vang Vieng that had received a bad reputation. A town reputedly visited by pleasure seekers not interested in culture. With surprise, we read one blogger’s account of how she thought Laos was a country full of people trying to rip her off. She claimed she would never visit again. Equally unsettling stories of transport scams and in-room theft surfaced.
So with these reflections, we boarded a bus to Nong Khai in Thailand and the Friendship Bridge crossing. The same border we had crossed twenty years ago.
It was a much easier border crossing than two decades earlier. Then, we had stepped into the mud and followed dirt tracks across a bare open field to an old rickety bus. This time we walked on a concrete path to an air-conditioned coach. We also stopped off at the Amazon coffee shop chain to buy a takeaway macchiato and frappe.
Revisiting Vientiane the Sleepy Capital
On the bus, it was an amusing observation to overhear two backpackers remarking they had come to Laos before it became too touristy.
In contrast to their observation, we arrived in a city complete with high-rise buildings and plenty of tourists. In the last twenty years, there had been a remarkable jump in mainstream tourism and a larger population living in the centre too. The small city now had better roads and infrastructure.
We recalled with trepidation our trip in the year 2000, to this same beautiful city of Vientiane on the banks of the Mekong River. Then it had a quiet village atmosphere with minimal traffic and lots of nature. At that time, we saw Vientiane as a small, growing town. But now that we look back in time, it was just a sleepy village. Our accommodation was in traditional wooden teak houses back then. Now there were streets lined with concrete hotels and shops.
Letting Go of History
We searched Google for the French Quarter. Two decades earlier, we had identified many charming French Colonial buildings. Therefore, we had eagerly expected such a historic area to exist. Instead, we found reports about the buildings becoming dilapidated and many being demolished. Unfortunately, the building code had restrictions that didn’t allow you to renovate in other styles. It was too expensive to restore, so the prohibitive cost combined with a lack of interest by locals, meant we found no French Quarter.
We experienced a different Vientiane to twenty years earlier. We recognised nothing except the timeless temples. And, of course, the Mekong River still gracefully flowed on the border across from Thailand’s Nong Khai.
We resolved to let go of the past and what was. And we went out to explore this unfolding city for what it was.
We toured the city by scooter and found it was easy to get around. Within five kilometres from the city centre, we saw rice fields. There were pigs, goats and cows crossing the street. We loved that we didn’t have to travel far from the city before we were in a rural area. We also loved that the roads were uncongested, like in many capital cities around the world. Bearing in mind there was rush hour traffic, and many roads were in rough condition or under construction.
We enjoyed touring this city of temples. The countless centuries-old Buddhist temples are all over the city. With their beautiful architecture, sculptures, intricate designs and paintings, they are peaceful places to visit.
Additionally, the Asian architecture and the few restored French Colonial buildings are charming. And we noticed new buildings that combine the two design styles. Also, we noted, there were still a few remaining wooden teak buildings. They are of a bygone era.
Furthermore, the iconic Patuxai Arch (otherwise unofficially known as the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane) stands towering, welcoming tourists to Laos. It was the same as it was twenty years ago. But now, tour buses were arriving with stack loads of tourists to visit this imposing war memorial.
Conclusively, Vientiane feels like a city under construction. Flash, modern hotels and skyscrapers are going up all over the city. There are chain stores from Thailand, like Amazon Coffee and Big C mini-marts. It wouldn’t be surprising if McDonalds came next.
We found the local people relaxed, welcoming and helpful. Indeed, the city still had a provincial town feeling and was very laid-back.
It will be interesting to see how this city develops in the next decade.
Our Vientiane favourites
We love Vientiane’s easy-going vibe, and we enjoy casually exploring the city. We highly cherish its temples and architecture. But, our most favourite thing to do in Vientiane is to stroll along the boulevard along the Mekong River. It is a nightly gathering place for tourists and Lao alike. The atmosphere is lively with fresh food markets, food & clothes stalls, music and even open-air aerobics. Bars are serving Beerlao with sunset views over the river, and restaurants are serving grilled fish and spicy Lao dishes to Westerners and the many Asian tourists.
Road Tripping & Overland Travel in Laos
We found ourselves slipping back into reflections of the past as we planned for our trip to Vang Vieng. We bought a bus ticket from our hotel in Vientiane. Easy! Twenty years earlier we had to travel to the local bus stop, without access to a timetable and wait for when the next bus came.
We also recalled the warning twenty years ago about the bus trip from Vang Vieng heading North and possible encounters with armed bandits. It was a road that was notorious for armed bandits stopping buses and robbing everyone on board. And just months before our trip back in 1999, several backpackers and their backpacks were found dead in a ditch.
In 1999 the tourism industry in Laos was in its early stages. The first arriving backpackers to travel in Laos did so on local buses on dirt roads full of potholes resembling craters, to take part in trekking activities, off the beaten track adventures and drug tourism.
It was a surprise to find the roads were still quite bad in 2019. Not the muddy tracks with 1-metre deep potholes we rode buses through two decades earlier. But it was still a rough and rugged ride on bad roads, with a 155km journey from Vientiane to Vang Vieng taking four hours.
However, we found the rural area with its stunning panoramas of undisturbed lush forests and mountains impressive.
Incidentally, new road construction is occurring all over Laos. Soon travel in Laos will be more comfortable and safer, and there will be superior roads all the way to China.
The start of the Vang Vieng Boom
Before Vang Vieng became one of Asia’s biggest party towns, it had been a quaint village with dramatic karst scenery and breath-taking rivers and lagoons.
In the late 90s, guest houses and opium houses opened to welcome the first lot of tourists to their growing village. The backpackers wanted to eat pancakes, watch Friends reruns and smoke marijuana and opium. They floated in tubes down the peaceful Nam Song River. Then there was nothing on the river except farmers, fishermen and families having their daily washing rituals in the river. They shyly waved hello to the newcomers.
Within the decade, the drug tourism industry boomed, and Vang Vieng Became known as a backpacker party town. Many tourists died during that time from an overdose or drowning while intoxicated while tubing down the now-famous Nam Song River. The river became a taboo place and the locals no longer washed in there, believing it was a place of demons.
In 2012, the government shut down the bars on the river and spent many years trying to clean up the ruined town of Vang Vieng. These days, Asian tour groups and well-heeled tourists are travelling there for nature and adventure activities.
We had seen Vang Vieng just before it had boomed. We had loved floating on tubes down the river and that there were no bars or buildings on it. And while backpackers were starting to arrive to experience the offerings of this wondrous area and charming village, it still felt authentic and non-touristy.
We were very intrigued to see what had happened to this delightful place we had loved.
Vang Vieng Today
One of our favourite things in Vang Vieng is exploring the countryside and the caves. The area with its abundance of caves is a cavers and rock climbers dream.
We adore the mountain scenery surrounding the river and the lagoons. It is a phenomenal area, and the limestone karst landscape is truly unique in this world.
We love kayaking down the river past untouched nature. And despite complaining about the jet boat noise ruining the tranquillity of the river, we appreciate the boat trip on the river. It allowed us to see more of the marvellous scenery than we would have otherwise.
Mostly, we loved eating Lao food and drinking beer on the riverfront, and we made it a nightly event at sunset time.
Further, we found several notable places to eat diverse cuisines from all over the world.
But we are particularly torn about the town. Two decades earlier, it was a charming, traditional village. Now it is a concrete jungle full of travel agents, shops, restaurants and accommodation. Hotels and restaurants line the river spoiling the serene atmosphere along with the noisy motorboat rides along the river. Additionally, dune buggies disturb the peace on the roads to the lagoons and caves.
However, we are glad we never saw Vang Vieng in 2010 when it was a party town for crazy young backpackers who just wanted to get wrecked. Who unabashedly flashed their naked bodies in a country that expected otherwise. And who ruined a peaceful river and town with whole bars lining it to serve them and their demands of alcohol, music and drugs.
Laos Welcomes You
We consider this developing country that has grasped to find its identity in the world of tourism. The tourists are coming to Laos, and the Lao people are welcoming them with open arms. After a rocky start, mainstream tourism and wealthier tourists now travel to Laos. They are spending money on fine foods and adventure activities. In Vang Vieng, we encountered many Korean and Chinese groups having the time of their lives and living out their bucket list dreams.
Are people still friendly?
Yes, we think they are friendlier than most countries in the world and not resentful with Western tourists, as in some countries. Also, we found the service industry chilled and easy going.
However, the natural curiosity and friendliness we had encountered twenty years earlier are lost.
Also, we don’t know why that blogger said everyone was trying to rip her off. However, once we read that article, we became cautious. This jaded our experience. Though, in retrospect, there are always a few people in every country who will try to rip off tourists. They think you are an easy target. And we do often find taxi pricing a universal scam across the world.
We rate Laos a captivating country to visit, and we would travel to Laos again and explore other less developed areas.
We consider Vientiane a lively town to visit for a weekend of culture, food and engaging attractions.
And, for someone who has never been, Vang Vieng is an area rich in wondrous nature and remarkable beauty. Plus, the small town caters to all types of tourists with distinct restaurants, bars and shops.
However, we will not go back to Vang Vieng ever again. We feel we have seen a traditional village ruined. And, despite trying, we keep comparing it to the untouched paradise it was in the past.
Unknown to us at the time, the change had already started twenty years earlier. We had sat at a peaceful, isolated and pristine blue lagoon. There was one village woman with a cart of water she was selling. We were there with four other tourists. One Scottish backpacker said to the local village woman,
“Do you have any beer?”
“Yes!” she said. She then jumped on her bicycle to travel the seven kilometres through the vacant fields back to Vang Vieng town to get beer for the tourist.
Bars, souvenir shops and restaurants now line the blue lagoon. It is no longer peaceful and isolated.
As a 20-year-old naïve backpacker, I didn’t realise I had just witnessed the death of this small rural village. And, the start of how tourism can change a nation.
If you loved this story from our Tales from the Road series, you would love Bulgaria – Twenty years later. Click here and read next!
RESOURCES on Laos Travel
For more information on travel in Laos, check out the Tourism Laos website which has an overview of its towns and attractions and downloadable maps.
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